Strange Comic Books: Spider-Ham in Marvel Tails

This installment of Strange Comic Books, my occasional look at the more odd & offbeat comics in my collection, was indirectly inspired by the recent news that the original artwork for two complete Amazing Spider-Man issues drawn by Steve Ditko had resurfaced after nearly half a century.  Specifically, those two stories are “The Coming of the Scorpion” from ASM #20 and “The Final Chapter” from ASM #33.  That later issue features the iconic sequence by Ditko & Stan Lee where Spider-Man struggles to lift up the massive pile of wrecked machinery that he is buried under.  This, in a very roundabout way, brings us to Marvel Tails #1 and only, published by Marvel Comics in 1983.

Marvel Tails cover

Marvel Tails #1 saw the introduction of probably the most famous, as well as clever, Spider-Man pastiche ever, namely Peter Porker, the Spectacular Spider-Ham.  This porcine parody of Spider-Man was devised by Tom DeFalco and Larry Hama.  DeFalco would, of course, soon after become well-regarded for his work on the actual Amazing Spider-Man title, as well as Thor and the long-running cult classic Spider-Girl.  But Spider-Ham was one of his earliest associations with all things arachnid.  As for Hama, though best known for his writing on G.I. Joe and Wolverine, he is also a huge fan of Carl Barks’ work, so it’s quite natural that he was involved in devising Marvel’s first funny animal character.

The title Marvel Tails is itself a pun on Marvel Tales, a long-running series which reprinted the Silver and Bronze Age Spider-Man stories.  In the days before Marvel had any sort of trade paperback program, Marvel Tales was the best way for younger readers such as myself to get caught up on the Spider-Man comics of the 1960s and 70s.

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“If He Should Punch Me” is written by DeFalco and edited by Hama, with artwork courtesy of penciler Mark Armstrong and inker Joe Albelo.  In addition to introducing Peter Porker / Spider-Ham, we meet Steve Mouser, aka Captain Americat, and their boss, curmudgeonly Daily Beagle publisher J. Jonah Jackal.  Porker and Mouser are sent by Jackal to cover the story of the Masked Marauder, a mysterious figure who is sabotaging the massive Video City arcade.  There they meet Bruce Bunny, the arcade’s chief electrical engineer.  While Peter and Steve are busy touring Video City, the Masked Marauder locks Bruce Bunny inside a broken “Gamma Gambit” video game.  The rays from the game transform Bruce into the Incredible Hulk-Bunny, who bursts out and embarks on a rampage.

The exploding video game attracts the attention of Peter and Steve, who slip into their Spider-Ham and Captain Americat costumes.  Cap comes across the Masked Marauder, while Spidey tangles with the Hulk-Bunny.  During the battle, the Hulk-Bunny knocks out a support beam, causing a bunch of video games and soda machines to topple onto him.

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And, yes, this is where that sequence by Ditko from “The Final Chapter” comes into the picture.  DeFalco, Armstrong & Albelo give us a playfully humorous parody of that classic scene, as Spider-Ham, pinned down by the huge pile of rubble, is inspired by his sense of responsibility and finds the strength to free himself.  Of course, in this version of events, after lifting up all of that wreckage, the weight causes the floor under him to collapse, dropping him on top of Captain Americat.  (Click on the above scans to enlarge for maximum humorous effect.)

The story soon wraps up, as the Hulk-Bunny is defeated and the Masked Marauder is, well, unmasked.  I won’t give you all the details, since it’s worth reading the story for yourself.  Marvel Tails was collected in the Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man digest-sized trade paperback published in 2010.  So go get it.

Marvel Tails pg 20

Rounding out Marvel Tails is a five page back-up starring the supernatural cyclist Goose Rider written & drawn by cover artist Steve Mellor.  It’s a ridiculously bizarre yet humorous set of gags that make absolutely no sense, but in a good way.

A year and a half after Marvel Tails hit the newsstands, Spider-Ham graduated into his own ongoing series.  Peter Porker, The Spectacular Spider-Ham ran from May 1985 to September 1987, lasting 17 issues.  After that, Spider-Ham became a periodic back-up feature in, appropriately enough, Marvel Tales.  And then there was the story in What The–?! #3 which featured Spider-Ham facing off against Raven the Hunter in a send-up of “Kraven’s Last Hunt.”  More recently Spider-Ham and his daughter Swiney-Girl showed up in Spider-Man Family, and there was a 25th Anniversary Special in 2010.

For an in-depth look at Spider-Ham’s creation and publishing history, I recommend picking up Back Issue #39 published by TwoMorrows and edited by Michael Eury.  Incidentally enough, Eury was one of the writers of Spider-Ham during his time in Marvel TalesBI #39 is topped off by a cool cover penciled by the late, great Mike Wieringo and inked by Karl Kesel.

Back Issue 39 cover

I don’t think the first Spider-Ham TPB sold especially well, since there unfortunately haven’t been any subsequent volumes.  In the absence of further collections, I think that Spider-Ham is definitely worth tracking down in the back issue bins.  It was a funny, clever series that offered some witty, good-natured Marvel self-parody.

By the way, getting back to our starting point, you can view scans of the original Ditko artwork from Amazing Spider-Man #20 and #33 on the website of Mike “Romitaman” Burkey.  It’s really fantastic to see.

Comic book reviews: Spider-Man “Kraven’s Last Hunt”

Each month Midtown Comics has their Book of the Month meeting, where one or more people involved in the creation of a graphic novel or trade paperback discuss the background of that volume.  This month, the featured book was “Fearful Symmetry: Kraven’s Last Hunt,” which many consider to be one of the all time great Spider-Man stories.

“Kraven’s Last Hunt” was originally serialized across six issues during a two month period in 1987, appearing in the three ongoing titles: Web of Spider-Man #31-32, Amazing Spider-Man #293-294, and Spectacular Spider-Man #131-132.   It was written by J.M. DeMatteis, with artwork by Mike Zeck and Bob McLeod.  Coming in to Midtown Comics to discuss it was editor Jim Salicrup (currently doing excellent work as editor-in-chief of Papercutz).

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“Kraven’s Last Hunt” deals with the relationship between Spider-Man and one of his old foes, Sergei Kravinoff, aka Kraven the Hunter.  It also examines the (at the time brand new) marriage between Spider-Man’s alter ego Peter Parker and his wife Mary Jane.

As the story opens, Kraven, who was born in the early 20th Century, is feeling the weight of age.  Although kept young and vigorous for decades by herbs and potions he discovered in Africa, Kraven now begins to suspect time is starting to catch up with him.  He is also dwelling on his long-dead parents, Russian aristocrats who fled to America in 1917.  And he has begun to obsess over his long string of defeats at the hands of Spider-Man.  Kraven comes to believe that no mere man could have bested him, that Spider-Man must be a dark spirit, the same spirit he now perceives as having toppled Czarist rule in his homeland.  Convinced that he will soon die, the Hunter is determined to best Spider-Man once and for all.

Ingesting strange drugs, Kraven goes on the prowl.  In the midst of a rainstorm, he ambushes Spider-Man, shooting him, seemingly killing him.  Burying his long-time foe, Kraven then takes on his costumed identity, to prove he is the better man, and begins a brutal crackdown on crime in New York.  When Kraven learns that the half-man, half-rat mutant named Vermin is on the loose in the city sewers, abducting & eating innocent people, he sees this as a further test.  Here is a foe that the real Spider-Man was never able to defeat on his own, one who he needed the assistance of Captain America to stop.  If Kraven alone can beat Vermin, he will then truly prove himself to be superior.

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Spider-Man is, of course, not dead.  Kraven has actually drugged him, and buried him alive.  Under the earth in a coffin for two weeks, Peter Parker experiences horrific hallucinations.  Finally, he is able to claw his way out of the coffin and up through the ground, driven by love, by the desire to be reunited with his wife, Mary Jane.

J.M. DeMatteis crafted a truly disturbing, dark tale with “Kraven’s Last Hunt.”  In his introduction to the TPB, he explains the genesis of the story.  It’s interesting that this originally began life as a pitch for a miniseries exploring the relationship between Wonder Man and his brother the Grim Reaper, turning into an examination of the dynamic between Batman and the Joker, before eventually (after a few more evolutions) becoming the climax to Spider-Man and Kraven’s long-running rivalry.

“Fearful Symmetry” was originally commissioned by editor Jim Owsley, and then fell under the auspices of his successor on the Spider-Man titles, Salicrup.  Although he wanted to take the three books in a less dark, more “fun” direction than Owsley had, Salicrup says he saw the potential in the story.  Like DeMatteis, he recognized that it was a brilliant way to explore the romance of Peter and Mary Jane.

As Salicrup explains it, although “Kraven’s Last Hunt” superficially resembles the “grim and gritty” comic books coming to the forefront in the mid-1980s, it really did not fall into that category.  It was actually the act of dropping the character of Spider-Man into a story along the lines of Watchmen or Dark Knight Returns and seeing what happens.  And what occurred was Spider-Man stayed true to himself.  Peter wasn’t driven by revenge to dig his way out of his grave, but by love for his wife.  As Salicrup observes, it is a scene that very much parallels the classic Amazing Spider-Man #33 by Steve Ditko & Stan Lee, when Spider-Man, trapped under a mountain of wrecked machinery, struggles to lift it up, knowing that he is the only one who can bring a life-saving serum to Aunt May, who lies dying.

Despite his traumatic experiences and the temptation to kill Kraven, Spider-Man does not emerge swearing to wreck brutal vengeance, but wishing to bring his foe to justice.  Finally, when Spider-Man himself must stop Vermin, an opponent Kraven defeated by brute force, the web-slinger does not descend to the level of the Hunter.  Instead, he tries to reach out to Vermin with empathy & understanding, and to use intelligence to outwit him.

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DeMatteis does a superb job scripting Kraven.  As someone who did not start reading comic books until the 1980s, I am not especially familiar with most of the character’s earlier stories.  As I understand it, even though he was created by Ditko and Lee, he was never considered a major Spider-Man villain, and as time went on, with subsequent appearances over the next two decades, he became something of B-list character.

DeMatteis himself admits that he was never a fan of Kraven, and that it was in his unexplored Russian heritage that the writer saw potential.  The Kraven in “Fearful Symmetry” is a troubled, dangerous individual, teetering between nobility and insanity.  In this six part tale, DeMatteis takes what was formerly a one-note character and remakes him into an intriguing, tragic, formidable opponent.

The artwork by Mike Zeck & Bob McLeod is absolutely magnificent.  I have been a huge fan of Zeck since he penciled Captain America in the early 1980s, paired up with, of course, DeMatteis as writer.  “Kraven’s Last Hunt” is a stunning reunion for the two of them, and Zeck does some of the best work of his career.  His layouts & storytelling are extremely dramatic.  The inking by McLeod really provides the artwork with a palpable atmosphere of shadows and looming darkness.

I also want to point out the contributions of letter Rick Parker.  Comic book lettering is an extremely underrated art, even more so than inking.  I’m a fan of such professionals as Janice Chiang, John Workman, and Tom Orzechowski, all of whom do wonderful work putting down dialogue and narration.  Parker is also an excellent letterer, and on “Kraven’s Last Hunt” he really emphasizes the dramatic beats and emphasis of DeMatteis’ scripting.

Credit also has to go to Salicrup for the idea to run “Kraven’s Last Hunt” during a two month period through all three titles, rather than having it serialized as a six-part story in Spectacular Spider-Man, as was the original plan.  Nowadays this is an extremely common practice, but back in 1987 it was exceedingly rare.  Salicrup’s canny rationale was that if Spider-Man is buried alive in Spectacular while he’s off fighting someone like Doctor Octopus in the pages of Amazing, it would significantly cut down on the dramatic tension.  Also, the two month schedule really helped maintain momentum that might have been lost over a half year.

(Incidentally, flipping back through many of the Marvel comic books that I read and enjoyed in the 1980s, I see a significant number of them were edited by Salicrup.  He seems to have had a real talent for getting the best work out of the creators working under him.)

My one disappointment was that this TPB did not also include the 1992 sequel “Soul of the Hunter,” also by the team of DeMatteis, Zeck & McLeod.  That special examined the consequences of Kraven choosing to take his own life at the end of “Fearful Symmetry,” as well as the lingering feelings Spider-Man has for what he went through.  It was an extremely good story.  Next time I’m over at my parents’ house, I want to dig it out of the box it’s buried in and read it once again.

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Oh, yes, for the completists out there, you will also want to track down a copy of issue #3 of Marvel’s humor title What The–?!  Featuring a tale of Peter Porker, the Spectacular Spider-Ham titled “Raven’s Last Hunt,” this oddball comic is topped off with a cover by Zeck & McLeod spoofing their original image for Amazing Spider-Man #294.

Arachnid pigs aside, “Kraven’s Last Hunt” is certainly a classic story, featuring brilliant work by an extremely talented creative team.  If you have not already read it, I highly recommend picking up a copy of the collected edition.  It is well worth a look.